In the family of my childhood I am the oldest child and the only girl, I have three younger brothers. My brothers were mischievous, always getting into some kind of dilemma. One morning they decided to make peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Being only nine and six years old, they had to climb up on the counter to reach the cabinet and pull out the huge jar of honey. Somehow the jar tipped over and honey spilled all over the counter top. Although we cleaned it up there was a sticky residue for many days afterward.
On another occasion my brothers were playing outside. One brother threw a metal pipe, as if it were a javelin in the summer Olympics. Our younger brother ran straight into the path of the flying pipe, which hit him in the head. The gash was deep and required stitches. The scar remained his entire life. My brother was remorseful for having thrown the pipe, but the one who was hit, just laughed it off. My brothers played hard and sometimes fought hard. But they love each other and always work out their differences.
I was never included in my brother’s shenanigans. Instead, I could be found reading in my room or playing my clarinet or attending ballet class. I helped make meals and clean the house and helped my brothers with their homework. I went out of my way to always be very good. The church I grew up in taught that every sin was a mark held against you forever. God had score keepers in heaven. I took to heart the words from today’s Gospel reading to be perfect in every way. It was an arduous responsibility, but I was determined to be holy and perfect. I have a clear memory of having been scolded by mother for, who knows what. As I stomped up the stairs to my bedroom I said to myself, “Just wait, I’ll be even more perfect from now on.”
As an adult I have spent a lot of time and money in therapy untangling that self-perception and the family dynamic behind it.
When I was fifteen my family left that church, and I was relieved of the burden to be holy and perfect. However, I was unable to leave behind my prayer life. I continued to have conversations with God. I was drawn into an ongoing relationship with God like water poured on parched soil. I explored other faith traditions. But, Christianity was the lens through which I understood who I was, how I was to behave, and how I was to navigate my way through the world. Realizing this I knew that I had to find a faith community with whom to worship; one where I could ask questions, explore my faith, and not be held to standards of perfection I couldn’t live into. I needed a faith community that understood forgiveness and reconciliation. This is why I found my way to the Episcopal Church.
Our readings today deal with these same issues: what does it mean to be holy? What does it mean to be perfect? And what does it mean to be a Christian and worship with a Christian community?
Jesus was shaped by the laws described in the book of Leviticus, which provided the foundation for Jesus’ summary of the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving others as Jesus teaches us, however, is not very easy to do. This love is about justice. Scripture teaches us that God’s vision of love and justice means enabling others to live a good, healthy life with all of their basic needs met. Our readings this morning remind us that we are made in God’s image, are made good to do good. And in doing good, as God desires, we are not only holy, but we are perfect.
Leviticus 19 is concerned with our interior thought process and our exterior behavior.[i] This passage, as well as the Gospel reading, asks us to be mindful of what we are thinking, saying, and doing. However, we should not make the same mistake I made as a child and focus too narrowly on certain kinds of behavior. If perfection does not mean choosing the right fork at the dinner table, nor does it mean attaining divine attributes of a heavenly being, what does it mean?
Contrary to Jesus’ point in Gospel reading in Matthew it sometimes seems that the values of this world affirm us when we are mean, hold grudges, and ignore those in need. If I turn the other cheek, I will get slapped again. If I get sued, I am hiring the best lawyer I can afford to find a loophole in my favor. If I love my enemies, I will be more persecuted or even killed. If I am too nice, I will be seen as weak, a pushover, a doormat. [ii] Ninety nine percent of the news is stories like these. As it to counter all of that the news will throw in one story about making a difference, one story where someone helps another. The news is skewed toward the brokenness of the human condition. What do we have for inspiration? What helps us see another way of living in this world and making a real difference? If being holy, and therefore perfect, is about how we think and act in everyday ordinary circumstances of life, what choices are we making?
All three of our readings today, Leviticus, Corinthians, and Matthew, point to God’s love for us. One of the primary ways we experience God’s love and forgiveness is through living in community. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians spells out for us what it means to live in community: we are to work out our differences, not gossip or hold grudges. We are to be gracious, work toward forgiveness and reconciliation, and hold one another in love, the same kind of love that God offers us.
I’ve learned that my instinct was right, being members of a faith community is where we come to grow in relationship with God, with others, and even with ourselves. Through participating in a faith community we become formed as a holy people of God and in so doing we may gain insight and discover ways to faithfully work through the challenges life throws our way. Being members of a faith community helps us understand that we can make a difference in the ordinary everyday aspects of our lives when we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.
I no longer believe that God keeps track of our every infraction. Now I believe that God embraces the broken pieces of our lives and lovingly holds them in God’s hand, working with us to mend the brokenness into wholeness.
Becoming perfect and holy is not seamless; our lives retain the scars of our woundedness. However, being in a faith community, in relationship with one another and God, can teach us that there is something beautiful to be found in the process when love and justice work to restore brokenness, seek forgiveness, and strive for reconciliation.
This reminds me of an ancient Japanese tradition called kintsugi. It is the art of gluing broken pottery back together with a resin mixed with gold. Kintsugi holds the vessel together but it makes the cracks stand out. For the Japanese these broken pots, glued with gold, become more attractive and valuable. Likewise, the broken pieces of our lives leave visible scars. But the love God offers us, the love we find in and through community, can, like gold, transform our scars into something valuable. With love our scarred lives may become holy and perfect.